‘Stateless Peoples’ Defend Diversity


BELÉM, Brazil, Feb 2 (IPS) – The immense diversity of peoples was apparent at the World Social Forum (WSF), which ended Sunday in Belém, the capital of the state of Pará in the Brazilian Amazon region.

The presence of 1,900 indigenous people representing 190 ethnic groups as well as 1,400 Quilombolas (people of African origins living in traditional communities) was conspicuous among the 133,000 participants from 142 countries. They had their own tents, discussions and celebrations at the event.

For the first time, there was also a tent for the Collective Rights of Stateless Peoples, initiating a reflection at the WSF about a "radical democracy" that upholds the self-determination of peoples, said Arnau Flores, a Catalonian journalist responsible for communication at the Escarré International Centre for Ethnic Minorities and Nations (CIEMEN).

A map showing 32 of these peoples-without-states was displayed in the tent, but "there are many more," Flores told IPS. Some are well-known – like the Palestinians, Basques, Roma, Kurds, Tibetans and Saharawi. Others are seldom thought of in this context, like the South American Mapuche and the Australian Aborigines.

More than 20 organisations of such peoples took part in the activities organised by CIEMEN, with discussions ranging from strategies for emancipation and building their own institutions, to topical questions linked to the main themes of the WSF – such as the crisis of civilisation and globalisation.

The seeds of a global network of "stateless peoples" claiming their collective rights were sown at this WSF, aiming at a new kind of decolonisation and running counter to the "idea of the imperialist nation-state" as the only institution possible in the world, said Quim Arrufat, a Catalonian political scientist in charge of CIEMEN’s international relations.

The Centre is based in Barcelona, the capital of the Spanish region of Catalonia – a nation-without-a-state.

CIEMEN does not itself advocate, for instance, a Palestinian state – the issue at the centre of the bloody conflict with Israel – but the right of the Palestinian people to make their own decision about this concern, Arrufat told IPS, making a careful distinction.

The "plurinational state" established in the new constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador is one way forward, but "perhaps it is not the path for other" peoples who need, for example, to return to their homeland, like the Saharawi, he said.

At the root of the problem is the "single legal framework" exported by Europe to the whole world, which determines the constitution of even international institutions like the United Nations – made up exclusively of nation states – which "is neither representative nor logical," he claimed.

One of the consequences of the nation-state model is wars and conflicts, but the issue of peoples-without-states is a new one. Twenty years ago it was a "prohibited" subject, and changing the present system "is not at all easy," Arrufat said.

The WSF opened the way to bringing together organisations from different regions to debate the issue and promote an international movement for the "collective rights of peoples" who have had their own identities suppressed, he said.

The legal system of national states does not recognise these collective rights, focusing instead on the rights of individuals, Flores said.

Spain grants a certain amount of autonomy to its regions, but Catalonia cannot carry out its own referendums, which must be exclusively national, and in the Basque Country – another Spanish region – any independent party is "outlawed and accused of being terrorist," he said.

Paradoxically, Europe, the cradle of the nation-state, is experiencing a number of conflicts and tensions because of its many "stateless peoples": the various Spanish regions, Corsica (in Italy), Brittany (in France), and Scotland and Wales (in the United Kingdom).

The European Union sparked hopes among marginalised peoples that integration would open the doors to their collective rights, but these hopes were dashed. The bloc of 27 countries was built on the idea of statehood, preventing the acceptance of, for example, multilingualism.

Thus the language spoken by seven million Catalonians is official neither in Spain nor in the EU, while in contrast Maltese – an official language of the Mediterranean island state of Malta with a population of 400,000 – is recognised.

The assembly on collective rights decided "to potentiate its participation in the WSF" by promoting this issue which had previously been considered almost solely in relation to indigenous groups, Flores said. Self- determination and sovereignty, among the goals of the 2009 Forum, were the core themes of the discussion.

The diversity of groups with identities of their own was highly visible at the Social Cartography by Traditional Peoples and Communities tent in Belém. This project begun by the Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM) and the Association of Amazonian Universities (UNAMAZ) has expanded throughout Brazil.

Dozens of maps of their territories have been made by indigenous peoples and the residents of "quilombos" (communities that were refuges for escaped African slaves) themselves, as well as by communities and social movements. These serve to increase knowledge and awareness of their own reality, and to appropriate information to use as the basis of autonomous initiatives and public policies.

These studies highlight an amazing diversity of communities with their own lifestyles, customs and methods of organisation, including riverside dwellers in the Amazon, fisher folk on large rivers, and the different communities who extract forest products, like natural rubber tappers.

Another example are the "faxinais", peasants in the south of Brazil who pool their land for livestock raising purposes only and have their own techniques of environmental management.

The diversity of WSF participants at Belém was visible too at the Federal Rural University of Amazonia (UFRA), where the Youth Camp and members of social movements were accommodated.

The multitudes of people on this campus for the six days of the Forum were visibly poorer than those who attended the non-governmental organisations’ activities at the nearby Federal University of Pará (UFPA).

The large numbers of indigenous Amazon peoples who attended, at a time when neoliberal (free market) globalisation is in crisis, provided "new inspiration for renewing the search for another world," said Cándido Grzybowski, one of the founders and organisers of the WSF and head of the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses (IBASE).

According to the figures he quoted at a press conference at the conclusion of the Forum, out of the 133,000 participants in Belém, 15,000 people were at the Youth Camp and 3,000 were children or teenagers. This is a guarantee of the continuity of the WSF, he said.

In all, "nearly 150,000 people were involved" in the global meeting of civil society, including 4,500 accredited members of the media -2,000 of whom were journalists, 1,000 artists who put on cultural performances, and over 10,000 people who worked in organisation, cooking food and other services.

Security was provided by 7,000 police officers, and health care by 900 professionals, according to Ana Claudia Cardoso, a representative of the state government of Pará.

The next WSF, to be held in 2011, will take place in Africa, said Taoufik Ben Abdallah, a Senegalese member of the African Social Forum. But this has not yet been officially agreed by the WSF International Council, which will consider the question on Monday and Tuesday.

There are proposals for the next WSF to be held in the United States, and for the biennial character of the Forum to be waived by holding another world meeting in 2010, in order to analyse and respond to the new circumstances created by the global financial crisis.

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